Are you feeling stressed out? Feeling down on yourself and everything else? You are not alone and you can step away from the ways that stress plays with your head and learn how to be more resilient to stress. Stress is a normal part of living and being human and in fact, we need some stress in our lives. Not all stress is negative. It is what gets us up and moving. We need the adrenalin rush of excitement, achievement, dreaming, planning and happiness in our lives. Without it we would all sit around doing nothing! But the prolonged stress that leads to a sense of distress, of feeling like it is all too much and things are outside of your personal control, is bad for your health. There are plenty of ways you can be more resilient to stress however.
So what is stress?
We talk about it all the time, we all experience it all the time, we hate it and we need it. Stress is all too easy to water down into one simple thing. In simple terms it means that if what you are being asked to do at this point in time is too much for you, you will experience stress. However, what you can deal with in your life, and what will lead to stress, will vary from day to day and from person to person. This means your ability to cope with stress will also vary.
Stress is actually much more complex than this and includes the ways you experience life, the pathways within your body and brain, the responses you have to stressful situations and events, and outcomes of this stress for your wellbeing. Stress is also complex because it can be caused by a range of different events or circumstances, and different people experience different aspects and identify with different definitions.
Worrying is a big part of stress and even imagined change can be a stress. This is what we tend to call “worrying”. If you worry that you will not have enough money to pay your rent, about something you said to someone, or did or didn’t do, that you may never achieve your goals, or that you may get sick, those worries can lead to increased negative stress. This kind of stress is in your control to manage – you can tune into the way you are thinking and stop this worry in its tracks, therefore reducing the impact of this way of thinking.
Regular relaxation and time out can help you to reduce this kind of worry. Talking to other people about your worries, rather than keeping them to yourself, can also help. Have you ever heard of catastrophising”? This is something I learned when I was experiencing high anxiety. I discovered I was compacting all the negative things in my life together, which made them worse and worse, and was increasing my overall stress and distress. It is like when the news grabs every terrible tragic story they can find from everywhere, and shoves them all into one news programme, whether or not they are relevant to their viewers or not. It makes you feel like the entire world is crashing down on you. Suddenly there is nothing but tragedy in the world.
If you start to catastrophise when something goes wrong, it increases your stress – this is the “it’s the end of the world”; “everything happens to me” kind of thinking. If one small thing goes wrong it is easy to start linking it to all the other bad things that have happened in your life, and then you can see nothing but sadness and terrible things. Learning how to keep this thinking in check can really help minimise stress.
A major source of stress is overdoing things. If you push yourself too much you have less rest time. Eventually you will “hit the wall and if you do this over and over, permanent damage may be done to your physical or mental health. If you are experiencing stress you may be prone to impulsive thinking and behaviour – which you may regret later – this means you can say and do things without thinking clearly.
There are a number of ways in which chronic stress can impact on your body and general health:
- Brain -fatigue, aches & pains, crying spells, depression, anxiety/panic attacks, sleep disturbance
- Gastrointestinal Tract – Ulcer, cramps & diarrhoea, colitis, irritable bowel
- Glandular System – Thyroid gland malfunction
- Cardiovascular – High blood pressure, heart attack, abnormal heart beat, stroke
- Skin – Itchy skin rashes
- Immune System – Decreased resistance to infections
Relaxation the best medicine for stress
High levels of stress, without corresponding rest and relaxation leads to what we call distress. Importantly though, you can “bank” your rest and relaxation times, by increasing activities that switch on the parasympathetic nervous system which works in balance with the stress response, as a sort of brake. Practicing regular relaxation and rest times, no matter what the stress levels are in your life, you allow your body to heal itself and stay strong in the face of the inevitable stresses of your life.
Things that can increase the parasympathetic nervous system, which brings a sense of calm, include:
- Listening to music
- Getting out in the garden
- Walking in the sunshine
- Playing a game with your child, pet, or best friend (maybe they are all the same thing!)
- Socialising and joining groups who share your passions
- Guided relaxation practices
- Be yourself and stop comparing or worrying about what other people think! There is NO normal.
I highly recommend learning and practicing guided relaxation. It gives a much deeper relaxed state for the body and mind than many other things and can make a large difference to depression and anxiety.
Stress Management and Exercise
Exercise is critical to your health and wellbeing. The current recommendation for adults is to firstly just sit less and take at least 30 minutes moderate every day if you can and at least 4 – 5 times week (60 minutes a day for children). We now have so many convenience machines and often sedentary lifestyles, that structured exercise is even more important. This does not need to be at the gym!
Walking is one of the best forms of exercise and it is free. Swimming and water based exercise are great for people with mobility problems. If you need help to work out the best exercise for you, an exercise physiologist can be great. Apart from the obvious physical health benefits exercise is also vital to stress management as it encourages that parasympathetic (rest and relaxation) response, calms body and mind and uses excess energy and muscular tension.
If you feel like stress is out of control in your life, try these steps:
1) Consider what’s happening in your life that might be increasing stress?
2) What is making it harder at the moment for you to manage stress?
3) What blocks and barriers are there to you reducing stress and how might you deal with these parts of your life?
4) What are your expectations of yourself at the moment?What are you asking of you?
5) Are your goals realistic right now? Sometimes we expect too much, or too little of ourselves.
6) What difficult emotions do you need to deal with? Emotions such as sadness, anger and grief may be hard to deal with and you may be trying to push them away, or make them disappear with unhealthy habits that just increase your stress. These emotions can be uncomfortable but very important in our lives. Acknowledging and accepting these feelings, then working through them so you can move on with your life can help.
7) Finally do not suffer in silence. Always seek support if needed. This may be from your usual doctor, a friend, family member or someone else you trust,a counsellor or psychologist, or a service such as Beyond Blue where you can access counselling and support.
Have you checked your stress levels and your relaxation levels lately and do you feel like they are in balance?